The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter III. Harvesting the Forest
The forest is never so wonderful as when spring wrestles with winter for supremacy. While the earth is yet ice bound, while snows occasionally fly, spring breathes her warmer breath of approach, and all nature responds. Sunny knolls, embankments, and cleared spaces become bare, while shadow spots and sheltered nooks remain white. This perfumes the icy air with a warmer breath of melting snow. The sap rises in the trees and bushes, sets buds swelling, and they distil a faint, intangible odour. Deep layers of dead leaves cover the frozen earth, and the sun shining on them raises a steamy vapour unlike anything else in nature. A different scent rises from earth where the sun strikes it. Lichen faces take on the brightest colours they ever wear, and rough, coarse mosses emerge in rank growth from their cover of snow and add another perfume to mellowing air. This combination has breathed a strange intoxication into the breast of mankind in all ages, and bird and animal life prove by their actions that it makes the same appeal to them.
Crows caw supremacy from tall trees; flickers, drunk on the wine of nature, flash their yellow-lined wings and red crowns among trees in a search for suitable building places; nut-hatches run head foremost down rough trunks, spying out larvae and early emerging insects; titmice chatter; the bold, clear whistle of the cardinal sounds never so gaily; and song sparrows pipe from every wayside shrub and fence post. Coons and opossums stir in their dens, musk-rat and ground-hog inspect the weather, while squirrels race along branches and bound from tree to tree like winged folk.
All of them could have outlined the holdings of the Harvester almost as well as any surveyor. They understood where the bang of guns and the snap of traps menaced life. Best of all, they knew where cracked nuts, handfuls of wheat, oats, and crumbs were scattered on the ground, and where suet bones dangled from bushes. Here, too, the last sheaf from the small wheat field at the foot of the hill was stoutly fixed on a high pole, so that the grain was free to all feathered visitors.
When the Harvester hitched Betsy, loaded his spiles and sap buckets into the wagon, and started to the woods to gather the offering the wet maples were pouring down their swelling sides, almost his entire family came to see him. They knew who fed and passed every day among them, and so were unafraid.
After the familiarity of a long, cold winter, when it had been easier to pick up scattered food than to search for it, they became so friendly with the man, the dog, and the gray horse that they hastily snatched the food offered at the barn and then followed through the woods. The Harvester always was particular to wear large pockets, for it was good company to have living creatures flocking after him, trusting to his bounty. Ajax, a shimmering wonder of gorgeous feathers, sunned on the ridge pole of the old log stable, preened, spread his train, and uttered the peacock cry of defiance, to exercise his voice or to express his emotions at all times. But at feeding hour he descended to the park and snatched bites from the biggest turkey cocks and ganders and reigned in power absolute over ducks, guineas, and chickens. Then he followed to the barn and tried to frighten crows and jays, and the gentle white doves under the eaves.
The Harvester walked through deep leaves and snow covering the road that only a forester could have distinguished. Over his shoulder he carried a mattock, and in the wagon were his clippers and an ax. Behind him came Betsy drawing the sap buckets and big evaporating kettles. Through the wood ranged Belshazzar, the craziest dog in all creation. He always went wild at sap time. Here was none of the monotony of trapping for skins around the lake. This marked the first full day in the woods for the season. He ranged as he pleased and came for a pat or a look of confidence when he grew lonely, while the Harvester worked.
At camp the man unhitched Betsy and tied her to the wagon and for several hours distributed buckets. Then he hung the kettles and gathered wood for the fire. At noon he returned to the cabin for lunch and brought back a load of empty syrup cans, and barrels in which to collect the sap. While the buckets filled at the dripping trees, he dug roots in the sassafras thicket to fill orders and supply the demand of Onabasha for tea. Several times he stopped to cut an especially fine tree.
"You know I hate to kill you," he apologized to the first one he felled. "But it certainly must be legitimate for a man to take enough of his trees to build a home. And no other house is possible for a creature of the woods but a cabin, is there? The birds use of the material they find here; surely I have the right to do the same. Seems as if nothing else would serve, at least for me. I was born and reared here, I've always loved you; of course, I can't use anything else for my home."
He swung the ax and the chips flew as he worked on a straight half-grown oak. After a time he paused an instant and rested, and as he did so he looked speculatively at his work.
"I wonder where she is to-day," he said. "I wonder what she is going to think of a log cabin in the woods. Maybe she has been reared in the city and is afraid of a forest. She may not like houses made of logs. Possibly she won't want to marry a Medicine Man. She may dislike the man, not to mention his occupation. She may think it coarse and common to work out of doors with your hands, although I'd have to argue there is a little brain in the combination. I must figure out all these things. But there is one on the lady: She should have settled these points before she became quite so familiar. I have that for a foundation anyway, so I'll go on cutting wood, and the remainder will be up to her when I find her. When I find her," repeated the Harvester slowly. "But I am not going to locate her very soon monkeying around in these woods. I should be out where people are, looking for her right now."
He chopped steadily until the tree crashed over, and then, noticing a rapidly filling bucket, he struck the ax in the wood and began gathering sap. When he had made the round, he drove to the camp, filled the kettles, and lighted the fire. While it started he cut and scraped sassafras roots, and made clippings of tag alder, spice brush and white willow into big bundles that were ready to have the bark removed during the night watch, and then cured in the dry-house.
He went home at evening to feed the poultry and replenish the ever-burning fire of the engine and to keep the cabin warm enough that food would not freeze. With an oilcloth and blankets he returned to camp and throughout the night tended the buckets and boiling sap, and worked or dozed by the fire between times. Toward the end of boiling, when the sap was becoming thick, it had to be watched with especial care so it would not scorch. But when the kettles were freshly filled the Harvester sat beside them and carefully split tender twigs of willow and slipped off the bark ready to be spread on the trays.
"You are a good tonic," he mused as he worked, "and you go into some of the medicine for rheumatism. If she ever has it we will give her some of you, and then she will be all right again. Strange that I should be preparing medicinal bark by the sugar camp fire, but I have to make this hay, not while the sun shines, but when the bark is loose, while the sap is rising. Wonder who will use this. Depends largely on where I sell it. Anyway, I hope it will take the pain out of some poor body. Prices so low now, not worth gathering unless I can kill time on it while waiting for something else. Never got over seven cents a pound for the best I ever sold, and it takes a heap of these little quills to make a pound when they are dry. That's all of you----about twenty-five cents' worth. But even that is better than doing nothing while I wait, and some one has to keep the doctors supplied with salicin and tannin, so, if I do, other folks needn't bother."
He arose and poured more sap into the kettles as it boiled away and replenished the fire. He nibbled a twig when he began on the spice brush. As he sat on the piled wood, and bent over his work he was an attractive figure. His face shone with health and was bright with anticipation. While he split the tender bark and slipped out the wood he spoke his thoughts slowly:
"The five cents a pound I'll get for you is even less, but I love the fragrance and taste. You don't peel so easy as the willow, but I like to prepare you better, because you will make some miserable little sick child well or you may cool some one's fevered blood. If ever she has a fever, I hope she will take medicine made from my bark, because it will be strong and pure. I've half a notion to set some one else gathering the stuff and tending the plants and spend my time in the little laboratory compounding different combinations. I don't see what bigger thing a man can do than to combine pure, clean, unadulterated roots and barks into medicines that will cool fevers, stop chills, and purify bad blood. The doctors may be all right, but what are they going to do if we men behind the prescription cases don't supply them with unadulterated drugs. Answer me that, Mr. Sapsucker. Doc says I've done mighty well so far as I have gone. I can't think of a thing on earth I'd rather do, and there's money no end in it. I could get too rich for comfort in short order. I wouldn't be too wealthy to live just the way I do for any consideration. I don't know about her, though. She is lovely, and handsome women usually want beautiful clothing, and a quantity of things that cost no end of money. I may need all I can get, for her. One never can tell."
He arose to stir the sap and pour more from the barrels to the kettles before he began on the tag alder he had gathered.
"If it is all the same to you, I'll just keep on chewing spice brush while I work," he muttered. "You are entirely too much of an astringent to suit my taste and you bring a cent less a pound. But you are thicker and dry heavier, and you grow in any quantity around the lake and on the marshy places, so I'll make the size of the bundle atone for the price. If I peel you while I wait on the sap I'm that much ahead. I can spread you on drying trays in a few seconds and there you are. Howl your head off, Bel, I don't care what you have found. I wouldn't shoot anything to-day, unless the cupboard was bare and I was starvation hungry. In that case I think a man comes first, and I'd kill a squirrel or quail in season, but blest if I'd butcher a lot or do it often. Vegetables and bread are better anyway. You peel easier even than the willow. What jolly whistles father used to make!
"There was about twenty cents' worth of spice, and I'll easy raise it to a dollar on this. I'll get a hundred gallons of syrup in the coming two weeks and it will bring one fifty if I boil and strain it carefully and can guarantee it contains no hickory bark and brown sugar. And it won't! Straight for me or not at all. Pure is the word at Medicine Woods; syrup or drugs it's the same thing. Between times I can fell every tree I'll need for the new cabin, and average a dollar a day besides on spice, alder, and willow, and twice that for sassafras for the Onabasha markets; not to mention the quantities I can dry this year. Aside from spring tea, they seem to use it for everything. I never yet have had enough. It goes into half the tonics, anodyne, and stimulants; also soap and candy. I see where I grow rich in spite of myself, and also where my harvest is going to spoil before I can garner it, if I don't step lively and double even more than I am now. Where the cabin is to come in----well it must come if everything else goes.
"The roots can wait and I'll dig them next year and get more and larger pieces. I won't really lose anything, and if she should come before I am ready to start to find her, why then I'll have her home prepared. How long before you begin your house, old fire-fly?" he inquired of a flaming cardinal tilting on a twig.
He arose to make the round of the sap buckets again, then resumed his work peeling bark, and so the time passed. In the following ten days he collected and boiled enough sap to make more syrup than he had expected. His earliest spring store of medicinal twigs, that were peeled to dry in quills, were all collected and on the trays; he had digged several wagon loads of sassafras and felled all the logs of stout, slender oak he would require for his walls. Choice timber he had been curing for candlestick material he hauled to the saw-mills to have cut properly, for the thought of trying his hand at tables and chairs had taken possession of him. He was sure he could make furniture that would appear quite as well as the mission pieces he admired on display in the store windows of the city. To him, chairs and tables made from trees that grew on land that had belonged for three generations to his ancestors, trees among which he had grown, played, and worked, trees that were so much his friends that he carefully explained the situation to them before using an ax or saw, trees that he had cut, cured, and fashioned into designs of his own, would make vastly more valuable furnishings in his home than anything that could be purchased in the city.
As he drove back and forth he watched constantly for her. He was working so desperately, planning far ahead, doubling and trebling tasks, trying to do everything his profession demanded in season, and to prepare timber and make plans for the new cabin, as well as to start a pair of candlesticks of marvellous design for her, that night was one long, unbroken sleep of the thoroughly tired man, but day had become a delightful dream.
He fed the chickens to produce eggs for her. He gathered barks and sluiced roots on the raft in the lake, for her. He grubbed the spice thicket before the door and moved it into the woods to make space for a lawn, for her. His eyes were wide open for every woven case and dangling cocoon of the big night moths that propagated around him, for her. Every night when he left the woods from one to a dozen cocoons, that he had detected with remarkable ease while the trees were bare, were stuck in his hat band. As he arranged them in a cool, dry place he talked to them.
"Of course I know you are valuable and there are collectors who would pay well for you, but I think not. You are the prettiest thing God made that I ever saw, and those of you that home with me have no price on your wings. You are much safer here than among the crows and jays of the woods. I am gathering you to protect you, and to show to her. If I don't find her by June, you may go scot free. All I want is the best pattern I can get from some of you for candlestick designs. Of everything in the whole world a candlestick should be made of wood. It should be carved by hand, and of all ornamentations on earth the moth that flies to the night light is the most appropriate. Owls are not so bad. They are of the night, and they fly to light, too, but they are so old. Nobody I ever have known used a moth. They missed the best when they neglected them. I'll make her sticks over an original pattern; I'll twine nightshade vines, with flowers and berries around them, and put a trailed luna on one, and what is the next prettiest for the other? I'll think well before if decide. Maybe she'll come by the time I get to carving and tell me what she likes. That would beat my taste or guessing a mile."
He carefully arranged the twigs bearing cocoons in a big, wire-covered box to protect them from the depredations of nibbling mice and the bolder attacks of the saucy ground squirrels that stored nuts in his loft and took possession of the attic until their scampering sometimes awoke him in the night.
Every trip he made to the city he stopped at the library to examine plans of buildings and furniture and to make notes. The oak he had hauled was being hewed into shape by a neighbour who knew how, and every wagon that carried a log to the city to be dressed at the mill brought back timber for side walls, joists, and rafters. Night after night he sat late poring over his plans for the new rooms, above all for her chamber. With poised pencil he wavered over where to put the closet and entrance to her bath. He figured on how wide to make her bed and where it should stand. He remembered her dressing table in placing windows and a space for a chest of drawers. In fact there was nothing the active mind of the Harvester did not busy itself with in those days that might make a woman a comfortable home. Every thought emanated from impulses evolved in his life in the woods, and each was executed with mighty tenderness.
A killdeer sweeping the lake close two o'clock one morning awakened him. He had planned to close the sugar camp for the season that day, but when he heard the notes of the loved bird he wondered if that would not be a good time to stake out the foundations and begin digging. There was yet ice in the ground, but the hillside was rapidly thawing, and although the work would be easier later, so eager was the Harvester to have walls up and a roof over that he decided to commence.
But when morning came and he and Belshazzar breakfasted and fed Betsy and the stock, he concluded to return to his first plan and close the camp. All the sap collected that day went into the vinegar barrel. He loaded the kettles, buckets, and spiles and stopped at the spice thicket to cut a bale of twigs as he passed. He carried one load to the wagon and returned for another. Down wind on swift wing came a bird and entered the bushes. Motionless the Harvester peered at it. A mourning dove had returned to him through snow, skifting over cold earth. It settled on a limb and began dressing its plumage. At that instant a wavering, "Coo coo a'gh coo," broke in sobbing notes from the deep wood. Without paying the slightest heed, the dove finished a wing, ruffled and settled her feathers, and opened her bill in a human-like yawn. The Harvester smiled. The notes swelled closer in renewed pleading. The cry was beyond doubt a courting male and this an indifferent female. Her beady eyes snapped, her head turned coquettishly, a picture of self-possession, she hid among the dense twigs of the spice thicket. Around the outside circled the pleading male.
With shining eyes the Harvester watched. These were of the things that made life in the woods most worth while. More insistent grew the wavering notes of the lover. More indifferent became the beloved. She was superb in her poise as she amused herself in hiding. A perfect burst of confused, sobbing notes broke on the air. Then away in the deep wood a softly-wavering, half-questioning "Coo-ah!" answered them. Amazement flashed into the eyes of the Harvester, but his face was not nearly so expressive as that of the bird. She lifted a bewildered head and grew rigid in an attitude of tense listening. There was a pause. In quicker measure and crowding notes the male called again. Instantly the soft "Coo!" wavered in answer. The surprised little hen bird of the thicket hopped straight up and settled on her perch again, her dark eyes indignant as she uttered a short "Coo!" The muscles of the Harvester's chest were beginning to twitch and quiver. More intense grew the notes of the pleading male. Softly seductive came the reply. The clapping of his wings could be heard as he flew in search of the charmer. "A'gh coo!" cried the deserted female as she tilted off the branch and tore through the thicket in pursuit, with wings hastened by fright at the ringing laugh of the Harvester.
"Not so indifferent after all, Bel," he said to the dog standing in stiff point beside him. "That was all `pretend!' But she waited just a trifle too long. Now she will have to fight it out with a rival. Good thing if some of the flirtatious women could have seen that. Help them to learn their own minds sooner."
He laughed as he heaped the twigs on top of the wagon and started down the hill chuckling. Belshazzar followed, leading Betsy straight in the middle of the road by the hitching strap. A few yards ahead the man stopped suddenly with lifted hand. The dog and horse stood motionless. A dove flashed across the road and settled in sight on a limb. Almost simultaneously another perched beside it, and they locked bills in a long caress, utterly heedless of a plaintive "Coo" in the deep wood.
"Settled!" said the Harvester. "Jupiter! I wish my troubles were that nearly finished! Wish I knew where she is and how to find my way to her lips! Wonder if she will come when I call her. What if I should find her, and she would have everything on earth, other lovers, and indifference worse than Madam Dove's for me. Talk about bitterness! Well I'd have the dream left anyway. And there are always two sides. There is just a possibility that she may be poor and overworked, sick and tired, and wondering why I don't come. Possibly she had a dream, too, and she wishes I would hurry. Dear Lord!"
The Harvester began to perspire as he strode down the hill. He scarcely waited to hang the harness properly. He did not stop to unload the wagon until night, but went after an ax and a board that he split into pegs. Then he took a ball of twine, a measuring line, and began laying out his foundation, when the hard earth would scarcely hold the stakes he drove into it. When he found he only would waste time in digging he put away the neatly washed kettles, peeled the spice brush, spread it to dry, and prepared his dinner. After that he began hauling stone and cement for his basement floor and foundation walls. Occasionally he helped at hewing logs when the old man paused to rest. That afternoon the first robin of the season hailed him in passing.
"Hello!" cried the Harvester. "You don't mean to tell me that you have beaten the larks! You really have! Well since I see it, I must believe, but you are early. Come around to the back door if crumbs or wheat will do or if you can make out on suet and meat bones! We are good and ready for you. Where is your mate? For any sake, don't tell me you don't know. One case of that kind at Medicine Woods is enough. Say you came ahead to see if it is too cold or to select a home and get ready for her. Say anything on earth except that you love her, and want her until your body is one quivering ache, and you don't know where she is."